'Anything red? Green? Do you have any - how to put this - colours at all?'
'No, it's just what we've got here, I'm afraid.'
'Just the beige, then?'
'Well, there's some white or black, I think, there's some Spice round the corner . . . I know, I know. It's terrible.'
The high streets this spring are veritable seas of beige, or, as it's more fashionably called, ecru. Call it wheat, maize, straw, stone, sand, putty, muesli or porridge - shop floors from Marks & Spencer, to Hennes, to Warehouse, to Wallis, to Principles are dominated to an extraordinary degree by the same pallid hue.
It's hard to know which shop you are in, let alone go back for something you fancied earlier, as you look at yet another pair of baggy ecru linen trousers, ecru cotton cardigan or tunic with loose flapping tails in a nice ecru. 'There's usually one look that's more popular than the rest,' whispered another assistant, this time in Hennes. 'But I think it's seriously gone a bit mad this year.'
'The natural story' is how the fashion business explains it. Natural? There's nothing natural about our being ushered into a sort of national, indeed international, ecru uniform.
Trying to unravel how the Lawrence of Arabia wardrobe department came to take over high streets from Luton to Lisbon unveils an Orwellian network of fashion intelligence agencies and global colour boards. Next Wednesday, for example, the British Textile Colour Group (BTCG) made up of fibre, fabric and clothing manufacturers, dyers, fashion forecasters, designers and major retailers, will be meeting in London to decide what colours we will be wearing in two years time.
Will they be discussing trends or dictating them, I asked the organizer Solveig Hill. 'What trends?' she said, with some surprise. 'We are the trends. At that stage there aren't any trends to follow.'
Mass market manufacturers are now dealing in such vast quantities that they need two years for production, and cannot afford to stick their necks out or take chances. They need a consensus on colour. Such is the growth and speed of information exchange that a strong colour consensus can take over the world.
Solveig Hill is also a director of Intercolour, a colour board with representatives from all over Europe, Eastern Europe, Japan, Korea and China. America has its own equivalents. Intercolour performs the same function as the BTCG but on a global level. 'I was in Barney's in New York recently, and it was beige from top to bottom,' says Hill with something like pride.
All very well if you're partial to beige. My sister, who lives in Belgium, looks repulsive in it. Despairing of wall to wall beige in the Brussels shops, she drove to Amsterdam only to find herself in ecru hell in Holland as well.
But why ecru? Why not crushed raspberry? Toasted plum? Was it the turn of the bleach manufacturers to be It? 'No, no. Colours evolve,' says Hill. 'It's a question of moving onto the next logical step. It could be a product of a political or ideological movement, a film, or technological advance.'
Sue Chorley, design co-ordinator for Courtaulds, takes up the tale. 'We look at what's happening on the catwalks, what the media are pushing, what's on MTV, which looks are coming through,' she says. 'Coming through' is an important phrase in the colour world. It's all very digestatory. Ecru has been 'coming through' for the last three or four years, according to Design Intelligence, one of several fashion forecasting companies who advise the big retailers.
Their design director, Christine Foden, explains that ecru's successful passage owed much to 'the ecology movement, Nineties' rethinking, a return to the old Sevenies' ideals. People want a natural look, and something they perceive to be kind to the environment.' Foden, unlike some forecasters, didn't see the Gulf war as a factor as much as 'a general interest in Middle East culture, and the opening of the doors of the Yemen to the outside world in the early Nineties.'
Yemen or no Yemen, those in the business admit that ecru has more of a grip than seems normal. 'It's partly because it's so easy for manufacturers to produce,' says Solveig Hill. 'And neutrals are always safe. It was the same with the black story, a few years ago.'
Courtaulds' Sue Chorley says: 'Personally I think the industry is going to shoot itself in the foot with ecru. The whole world is doing it. You wonder how much people can take.'
It doesn't even stop at clothing. The Habitat spring catalogue is full of ecru rooms with ecru soft furnishings where an occupant clad in this year's high street fashions would be almost impossible to spot.
'For the last two or three years we've been increasingly interpreting the trends of the high street in furnishings' says Iain Renwick, Habitat's marketing director. Whither ecru next? Ecru cars? Ecru food? A new look at porridge?
At least it is a quiet and unobtrusive shade, unlike the lurid greens and purples which are still 'coming through' on the nylon rucksacks and money belts of the Euro-youths outside Madame Tussaud's and the shell suits of elderly holidaymakers.
The unfortunate acid colours story began in the Eighties with developments in dying lycra fabrics, psychadelic fads in club land, and a craze for bright sportswear in the black American street scene. It spread like giant hogweed through surf- wear and ski-wear until, about 10 years later, much watered down, it hit the high street leisurewear chains - so that a trend beginning on a cool youth at an acid house rave ended up on his granny's anorak.
Ecru is much less offensive, and of course, you don't have to buy it. You can always just wear your old clothes - very ecologically sound. The image consultant Colour Me Beautiful takes a positive view. 'I have definitely seen colours out there in the shops,' said its spokesman encouragingly. 'You just have to hunt them out. Alternatively people can buy scarves - you can always find scarves in bright colours.'
'I do think the homogenisation is rather sad,' says Sue Chorley of Courtaulds. 'It means you have to know how to shop the high street, where to go to find something different, and how to put a look together in an original way. If you don't, you end up looking like a clone.'
Home dying, of course, is another approach, and in fact, not a bad idea at all since tie- dye is one of the stories which is 'coming through' for next spring. Another, creeping into tiny spaces in the chain stores, is camouflage - practically old news already with the catwalk designers.
Katharine Hamnett has hooded combat jackets on sale for women at pounds 340. Jean Paul Gaultier has gone for combat trousers while Comme des Garcons is looking at the victim end of war, with boiled cashmere khaki dresses at between pounds 2,000 and pounds 3,000.
A little tasteless perhaps? A touch too Schindler's List? 'It's re-worked camouflage,' say Design Intelligence. 'Environment, wood, forest, alternative holidays to beach holidays.'
Ah. Not Bosnian war or Holocaust then?
'No. It's more anti-aggressive than aggressive - dressing up to fight what's wrong in the world.'
Too much ecru is a good place to start. And the marvellous thing about camouflage is that you can take the story right through from the dress to the house to the garden, and out into the countryside.
And the really good thing is that when you're out in the countryside in your stylish new outfit, no one will be able to see you.
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